The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Twas the Night Before Courses

I have 5 fantasies about students, me, and the new school year.

I’m composing this blog entry on the night before the new academic year.  What a great time!  Everything to look forward to.  All is potential. I get another chance to atone for, and improve upon, my previous performance.  

Are you a chess player?  Maybe checkers?  Either way, you know how the board starts out exactly the same every time—just like a classroom full of students at the beginning of every semester.  Right at the beginning it’s tempting to think that every chess game, or every course, will be the same.  “Here we go again,” I think.  But I look forward to both chess and the school year not with boredom or dread but with excitement, because I know that within a short time the positions become unique, complex, challenging, and absolutely engaging. 

Every time I begin a chess game I fantasize about the beautiful combination that will win the game.  I’ll see the amazing series of moves and (for the first time) be able to announce, “Mate in 5!”  Likewise, the beginning of the semester is a time to fantasize about perfect courses.  Here are 5 of my top fantasies as I begin the year: 

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1.  All my students will be perfect ... or, at least, they’ll pretend to be motivated.

This year my students will all see the value in a college education—and in my course.  They won’t feel entitled to a good grade.  Rather, they will take responsibility for the effort involved in earning their grades. 

2.  Grading will be effortless and perfectly accurate all the time … or, at least, I won’t get sued. 

Grades will come out such that all will be in the middle of the range.  No borderline grades means fewer pleas for extra credit, special consideration, or mercy.  If there are grade disputes, I will be able to acknowledge my mistakes, change grades when necessary, and effectively explain my reasoning for not changing a grade.  Discussions about grades will become discussions about life skills, effort, and improvement. 

3.  I’ll be able to see and correct students’ imperfections and take advantage of every opportunity to help students think better … or, at least, I won’t leave them totally disillusioned. 

Among the important tasks in teaching are assessing where students are and providing just enough scaffolding (structure) for them to take the next steps in their development.  This year I’ll provide perfect scaffolding on two levels.  First, I’ll design my courses, at whatever level, to provide a bridge between where students are and where they need to go.  Second, I’ll have just the right thing to say to each student who has a particular issue, strength, or weakness.  For example, I won’t do anything for students that they can learn to do for themselves.

4. Students won’t be able to see any of my imperfections … or, at least, my imperfections won’t get in the way of their learning.  

I fully expect to be perfect this time around.  For example, every question I ask in class will be provocative and scintillating.  The ensuing class discussions will engage every student.  But if I’m not perfect, maybe I can at least be SEEN as perfect.  I hope students see me as (a) effective, (b) innovative, or (c) at least not one of those professors who phones it in.  (These days, of course, we can Skype it in….)   

5.  I will inspire all my students ... or, at least, make a little difference for a few of them. 

I will have a diversity of students, treat them fairly, and somehow improve their lives as students and citizens.  I’ll find ways to connect my higher motivations with theirs to crease experiences that students will remember and from which they’ll grow.  Finally, I fantasize that students will accept my invitation to participate in the adventure of learning. 

If you’re starting a new school year, what are your fantasies? 

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

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 © 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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